Gina Christian

“Safe trip,” said my friend Father Doug. “And remember, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

“Thanks, Father,” I said. “I’ll buy you a souvenir.”

I was heading to Ireland with an overstuffed suitcase and an itinerary to match it. In one short week, I planned to attend the 2018 World Meeting of Families, write a few news articles, visit several tourist sights and spend a day or two in the countryside.

“I can get it all done,” I insisted to disbelieving friends. “I’ll just need more tea and less sleep.”

And I had another item on my to-do list: visiting a church where a 19th-century laborer named Matt Talbot — a former alcoholic who became an unlikely mystic — was buried.

I’d learned of him through Father Doug, who led a recovery ministry. With opioid addiction raging in the United States, I’d begun praying to this saint in the making, whose profound faith and triumph over alcoholism led Pope Paul VI to declare him “venerable” in 1975. Today, Matt Talbot is increasingly invoked by those who struggle with substance abuse.

And how desperately we need his prayers: where I live, public overdoses are common in some neighborhoods. Men and women ravaged by drugs and alcohol haunt subways and sidewalks, bound by unseen chains.

“Matt Talbot,” I began to whisper whenever I saw them. “Please help.”

My prayer was at first a hesitant one. I’d known so many who had been strangled, body and soul, by the grasp of addiction.

Bring me their names, came the thought.

And so, somewhat uncertainly, I bought a notebook and wrote down the names of everyone I knew who needed healing from addiction. I created a Gmail address and a Facebook page, calling for more: first names, initials, nicknames.

“I’m taking them all to the shrine of Matt Talbot, our addiction ‘insider in heaven’,” I announced.

And names streamed in. Gregory, a man in Poland, sent me dozens; others emailed me one, two, five, ten. Many shared the despair they felt as they watched addiction destroy their loved ones and their families. The little notebook – with the untold agony of each soul it listed – was far heavier than it seemed.

Arriving in Dublin, I marched through my zealous itinerary, planning my days to the minute, trying to control every detail. The shrine visit was set for the end of my stay, after I’d fulfilled my work commitments.

Not surprisingly, my self-important agenda quickly unraveled. My articles took more time to write than expected. Long lines snaked around the sights I’d wanted to see; the trip to the countryside was out of the question.

I grudgingly sensed that another agenda might be at work, one that would require me to “let go and let God” — just as Matt Talbot himself had done when he’d humbled himself, put down the bottle and taken up a new life in Christ.

I met a number of people who testified to the grace that had transformed this unassuming workman: Father Brian Lawless, the vice postulator of Matt Talbot’s cause for canonization; Michael and Noeleen Murphy, who have spent years fostering devotion to this timely intercessor; Darren Butler, head of the Irish Bishops’ Drugs Initiative, which brings the field hospital of the Catholic Church to thousands wounded by addiction.

I met others who, on learning of my pilgrimage, confided their anguished experiences with substance abuse: the woman who’d just left her husband due to his drinking; the mother whose son was on his fourth stint in rehab.

Adding their names to the notebook, I finally prepared to visit the shrine. Surely God and I were on the same page here; surrender to the divine will was necessary, of course, but this was the one thing on my list that I was going to complete exactly as I’d intended.

And then Pope Francis ruined even that. Sort of.

The pontiff — in Dublin to celebrate the World Meeting’s closing Mass — decided to make a last-minute stop at the shrine to bless the relics of Matt Talbot. Security was tight; there was no way I could gain access.

I thought that God must be backslapping Matt Talbot with laughter at my plans.

Unwilling to admit defeat, I waited until the papal motorcade had passed, then began my trek to the shrine. My journey there was sheer penance: no cell phone signal, no Google Maps, no success in following directions from passersby. Feet and temper blistering, I wondered how a church just visited by the pope himself could be this hard to find.

Providentially, Darren Butler spotted me in the crowd and guided me to my destination.

“You know, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” Darren smiled as he waved goodbye.

I knelt at last before Matt Talbot’s sturdy wooden coffin, encased in marble and glass, notebook in hand.

“Matt Talbot,” I whispered. “Please help. Help them all.”

I flipped through the notebook’s pages, rather proud that I’d collected so many names, and that I’d finally been able to bring them to the shrine. Yet instead of peace, I felt a nagging dissatisfaction.

For all the names it held, the notebook was only just over half full.

A grand start, but you’re not yet finished. Try to fill the book before you come back next year.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I thought. “It took enough effort just to make this trip.”

Whose itinerary do you want to follow — your own, or God’s?

And after a long and searching moment, I realized that I would return — with a full notebook, a heart emptier of self and a soul more like Matt Talbot’s, one that seeks not its own will, but only the divine agenda.

Because if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com. Follow her on Twitter @GinaJesseReina.